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What are the characteristics to develop, if you want to be a truly wise leader?
Issue 039
Mike Clayton, Business Speaker and Author

Wise Leadership

Ten characteristics of truly wise leadership


Dear John,   

Last month's edition of Training Journal published my article on The Wisdom of Leadership (you can download a pdf copy here). Seeing it in print led me to wonder how we would recognise wise leadership if we saw it. I thought you might be interested in my thoughts.

I concluded that wise leadership...

... makes a difference

While smart leaders keep things on an even keel, wise leaders know they have a window of opportunity to make a difference and are determined to seize their chance.  The two primary forms of wisdom are Sophia and Phronesis. Phronesis is the practical wisdom to get things done; navigating material and logistic challenges and the vagaries of realpolitik. 

... and chooses that difference with care

Sophia is the wisdom to make sound choices. You can easily find yourself dissipating your energy across many endeavours. This is neither smart nor wise: focus on one thing at a time, that really matters, and give it all of your commitment. Our word decision comes from the Latin: de cidere - to cut off from. When you make a decision, you cut yourself off from all of the alternatives.

... is mindful of unintended consequences

Decisions have implications - and not all of them are what you intend. Wise leaders know this, so they play out scenarios like chess grand masters, deploying all the many pieces in different ways to gauge the impacts of their choices. You will not be able to maintain a 100% record of right decisions, but by thinking through all of the possible consequences first, you can raise your hit rate.  

... can see the small details and subtle trends

"Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige's wall, it is written: 'Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.'

Master Itei commented, 'matters of small concern should be treated seriously' "

Hagakure - In the Shadow of the Leaves - is sometimes called The Samurai Manual. It is certainly strong on how to die well, though not dying seems preferable to me. However, it is full of wise observations and this is one of my favourites.

... can synthesise details into a broad context

Perceiving the details is of no use to you unless you can also use them to build a wider understanding. The value of detail is to avoid your understanding becoming superficial. Make it deep, rich and textured. This will allow you to build nuance into your actions.  

... learns constantly, to adapt to changing realities

Smart leaders learn what they need to, to thrive in a changing world. Wise leaders learn for the sake of learning, because they know that the broadest possible understanding will give them the ability to be the first to perceive from which direction the changes will come, and how they will affect your choices.

... can exert self-control when under pressure

It is easy to be self-assured and appear controlled in set piece events. The tougher quest is to remain fully in control when events spiral out your control. These are the leaders that fill us with confidence.

... while remaining honest about who you are

Wise leaders are never so controlled that they hide their true selves behind some form of shop-front. Instead, they develop their true selves to be something finer than many of the rest of us.  

... knows that even bystanders matter

This doesn't mean that everyone will be right - how could they be? Nor does it mean we have a duty to everyone. It does mean that your choices and actions affect people and that you have responsibilities that you need to balance. You cannot balance all of your responsibilities without recognising that bystanders do matter. This is true not just of the people who are here now, but those who will follow too.

... because you know your role is to serve

Leadership is like a circle: when you truly lead, people happily follow. This gives you a responsibility towards them. Many models of leadership assert a leader has a responsibility to help others "become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous". In describing Servant Leadership, Robert Greenleaf used those words as the test of a servant leader.


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Autumn 2013 will see a new book about communication, to be published by Pearson. Editorial changes now made and training course developed.

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